PULLMAN — For one magical season, John Olerud was the Babe Ruth of college baseball. Minus the pot belly, the womanizing and all that beer drinking, of course.
Twenty-five years ago, as a lanky sophomore at Washington State, Olerud duplicated the hitting and pitching heroics that Ruth accomplished early in his major league career before he became a full-time outfielder.
Not only did Olerud hit a school-record .464 in 1988, but his 15-0 pitching record remains unmatched in Cougars history. Other WSU records he set that season, most of which still stand, included 23 home runs (in 66 games), 81 runs batted in, 108 hits, 21 doubles, a .556 on-base percentage, an .876 slugging percentage, 122 2/3 innings pitched and 113 strikeouts.
“The most unbelievable season – by far – I’ve ever heard about,” said Steve Hertz, who lengthy college coaching career included the 1988 season at Gonzaga.
No wonder Baseball America named Olerud the college player of the year.
No wonder the John Olerud Award is presented annually to the best two-way player in college baseball.
No wonder Olerud is a member of the College Baseball Hall of Fame.
“He’s the best college baseball player I ever saw,” Hertz said.
“His pitching was unbelievable,” longtime WSU coach Bobo Brayton said.
Saturday, prior to WSU’s noon game with Stanford, Olerud’s No. 18 will become the first player number retired in the long and illustrious history of Cougars baseball. Olerud, 44, a former Seattle Mariners star who lives in the Bellevue suburb of Clyde Hill, will be on hand with his family.
“It’s a real big honor,” Olerud said Friday before attending a luncheon arranged by WSU athletic director Bill Moos. “Hearing about what Bill Moos is doing with honoring the past and trying to get recognition out to the guys who had played here and had some success here, I think it’s great.”
Most baseball fans remember Olerud as a slick-fielding first baseman who hit .295 with 255 home runs in 17 seasons in the major leagues. Olerud starred on Toronto’s World Series champions in 1992-93, won the American League batting title in 1993, and later won three Gold Gloves for fielding excellence with Seattle. In the 116-win season of 2001, Olerud hit .295 with 25 home runs and 95 RBI.
It was in 1988 that Olerud drew national attention to Pullman for his college feats. Olerud, a first baseman and designated hitter when he wasn’t pitching, put together one of the most remarkable seasons in college baseball history.
“He was two guys,” said Hertz, who now works in athletics administration at Gonzaga. “He was two great players.
“He wins the player of the year award if he doesn’t pitch, and he wins it if he’s just a hitter.”
Olerud, soft-spoken and modest to a fault, said, “It was just one of those years where everything went well for me.
“I was swinging the bat well. We had a great team, a great lineup. It was fun just to be part of it, where everybody was driving the ball around the ballpark and we were scoring lots of runs.
“Then on the pitcher’s mound, there really wasn’t much pressure on you as a starting pitcher, because you’d go out there and you knew they were going to score eight to 10 runs for you.”
Hertz and Brayton still talk about towering home runs Olerud launched at Gonzaga’s old Pecarovich Field, at the current site of the McCarthey Athletic Center basketball arena.
“The longest ball I ever saw hit there … it was still going up when it left,” Hertz said.
“I remember he hit two of ’em up at Gonzaga over those trees in center field,” Brayton said. “They’re still looking for the balls.”
Olerud hit a school-record .434 in three seasons at Washington State. The left-hander’s 26-4 pitching record was every bit as impressive.
“He had the greatest (pick-off) move I’ve ever seen,” Hertz said.
Olerud signed with Toronto as a third-round draft pick in 1989. He was personally scouted at length by Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick, who later served as GM of the Mariners and is now a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Blue Jays expected Olerud to play first base, but they briefly looked at him as a pitcher in the fall of ’89 in the Florida Instructional League. When Olerud reported for his first spring training, he still didn’t know where the Blue Jays planned to use him.
“We have our big meeting, introducing trainers and front office staff and coaches, and they say, ‘Position players on the main diamond, pitchers for fielding practice on the half diamond,’” Olerud recalled. “And nobody’s told me what I’m doing.
“I knew they liked me as a hitter, so I went over with the hitters on the main diamond, figuring they’d call me if they wanted me to pitch.
“They never called.”
Brayton recruited Olerud as a hitter and pitcher, but Brayton admits he did not have high hopes for the son of a former Cougars catcher (also named John).
The New York Mets drafted Olerud as a first baseman in the 27th round out of Bellevue’s Interlake High School, but Brayton said, “I didn’t expect anything, because he was a tall, skinny kid.
“He couldn’t run. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t do nothin’.”
Olerud soon proved to Brayton that he could do somethin’ come game time. Olerud hit .414 and went 8-2 on the mound as a freshman.
Olerud has always expressed great admiration and appreciation for Brayton. The fiery Brayton could be extremely demanding, but the legendary coach laughed when he recalled hearing about the time brash shortstop Rob Nichols questioned where Brayton was batting Olerud in the lineup.
“When,” Nichols wanted to know, “is Bobo going to realize that Oly is better than all of us?”
Olerud was the rare prospect who went straight to the major leagues without any seasoning in the minors. Amazingly, he did so the same year he suffered a brain seizure during a winter workout.
Following two risky operations, Olerud managed to play half a season for the 1989 Cougars. He hit .359 and posted a 3-2 pitching record while wearing a batting helmet in the field as a protective measure. He continued to wear a helmet in the pros, a reminder of his close brush with death in college.
“We didn’t know if he was going to live or what,” Brayton said. “He eventually made it, and he walked out of the doggone operating room and started hitting home runs.”
Three questions for John Olerud
Q: Who was the toughest pitcher you ever faced?
A: Randy Johnson. That seems like a pretty obvious choice, because he was so intimidating and such a power pitcher.
Q: Could you have made it to the major leagues as a pitcher?
A: I don’t know. I wasn’t overpowering. I’d need to locate well and get a little better movement on my pitches. Obviously, you never know how your arm’s going to hold up. I liked how the hitting worked out. If I had to give up one, it would have been easier for me to give up pitching than hitting, because I just enjoyed hitting.
Q: Should players who used performance-enhancing drugs be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame?
A: To be honest, I really haven’t thought about it that much. I know it’s going to be a challenge for those guys, because it seems like they’re getting an unfair advantage. But at the same time, it’s not always the nicest guys in the world that are in the Hall of Fame.